Counting Your Negatives

Back in August I wrote about some research I had gotten into mostly for fun. You might recall it. I searched on a company name and the word “sucks” and reported what I found. The point of the research was not to be salacious or to offend anyone. In political circles, it’s known as discovering one’s “negatives” — here’s how it works:

Suppose you wanted to find a politician’s approval rating. We do it all the time; it’s part of polling to see, for example, how well the public appreciates what a person in political life is doing. The question used to gather this data can be as simple as, “Do you think so-and-so is doing a good job?” You usually get back three categories of answers: yes, no and no opinion. Each category is important. Obviously, if you are running for office, you’d like to see your yes votes or positives exceed your opponent and, in a perfect world, also exceed 50 percent.

Just as important, though, are the negatives or no votes. Because it’s harder to change a person’s mind than it is to convince that person in the first place, low negatives and higher undecideds is what you aim for simply because you want to be convincing people of your approach rather than trying to get them to forget some gaff.

So, what my little survey did was simply try to measure the negatives. Companies do this all the time with satisfaction surveys, but a satisfaction survey is far from perfect for lots of reasons. Measuring “customer sat” frequently means narrowing down the survey area to a specific instance — were you happy with the service you got today? Yes? Great! Alert the media!

Try the Bigger Picture

As you can see, this approach can ignore any larger concern a customer might have. For instance, I hate most airlines, but I have to fly. I’m tall and my body doesn’t fold neatly into a cramped seat. Airlines know this, and often they don’t even try to find out how I really feel. I took a satisfaction survey recently and the vendor only wanted to know three things. I have forgotten two of the three metrics they measured, but the third had to do with being on time. Maybe the other two had to do with unscheduled mid-air stops, I forget, but they set the bar pretty low for themselves.

So, a sat survey is not the place to find out what your customers really think; it’s a band-aid at best. That’s why the “sucks” survey is so useful. It provides an unvarnished look at what people really think. And since this method only measures the people who were upset enough to write something or to create a blog dedicated to trashing the vendor, I have to say it’s a good hardcore measure.

The Value of Good Will

OK, now for today. There was something left unwritten in my series on what sucks. Going back to the political analogy, companies with low negatives have an inherent advantage over their competitors who might have higher negatives. Low negatives represent good will, something you can count on when you can’t count on more tangible things. Will your customers be with you if you stumble, or will they be willing to work with you on a new product in a long beta program? The good will you store up is like money in the bank.

Interestingly, the company that had the lowest negatives of all those I looked at was They weren’t perfect for sure — they had 92,000 hits on the search — but in comparison to British Petroleum at 2.5 million or Dartmouth College at over 1 million, or even Starbucks at over t300,000 negatives, Salesforce looks good.

To be sure, Salesforce has stumbled a few times, for instance when the service degraded and everyone thought it was the end of the world. But in that situation, Salesforce simply became very transparent and launched a series of community outreach initiatives to keep customers informed about its performance. This is not to say that other vendors don’t do similar things, it’s just that Salesforce gets very good results for these efforts.

Partner Confidence

Case in point: For about the last year Salesforce has been developing and deploying a new product called “Chatter” for coordinating how large groups work using crowd wisdom. The beta program was by most standards very successful with more than 500 companies participating in the final stages. That’s a huge number for a beta, and more companies could have been accommodated, but you have to draw the line somewhere.

My point is that at least indirectly, Salesforce’s low negatives contributed to giving its customers the confidence to work with the company in the development and beta process. Of course, low negatives are the result of many things, including customers realizing that they are receiving good value for their investments. Taken together, this is an example of what happens when you deliver transparency and value, and in this economic environment especially, it can be very important.

Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is the author of Hello, Ladies! Dispatches from the Social CRM Frontier and can be reached at [email protected].

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